Category Archives: reading tips

“How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?”

How do I teach my grandson to read remotely?” asked a grandmother. She plans to use Zoom, Facetime, and ready-to-go reading materials for an hour daily.  After testing the boy informally, she believes she needs to start from scratch to fill in any gaps in basic phonics.

Here is what I advised her:

First, buy two copies of “Why Johnny Can’t Read” by Rudolph Flesch.  Send one to your grandson and you keep one.  Go to the back where there are lists of words.  Start on page one, asking the boy to pronounce the sound of each letter shown.  When he can do that, move on to the page of short a words.  Have the boy read the short a words, or a portion of them.

Reading lists of words is tiring, so do maybe ten minutes of such work and ask the boy’s parents to do another ten minutes at night.  Or read from the list at the beginning of the lesson, then do something else, and then come back to the list.  Move through the lists at whatever pace indicates that the boy is mastering the words.

Why use “Why Johnny Can’t Read” a 65-year-old resource?  The simple answer is because I know it works.  I have used this phonics-based resource for almost 35 years with native born children and with immigrant children.  All of them hated it, true, but all of them learned to read quickly.  There are other reading primers, but for me this is a tried and true resource.  It’s available in bookstores and online.

Second, buy two copies of “Explode the Code” workbooks 1, 1 ½, 2 and 2 ½.  (Eventually, buy the next sets in this series, but for starts, these workbooks are enough.)  This series teaches reading using a phonics-based approach.  Kids like it because of the silly illustrations.  Have the child start reading while you follow along on your copy, noting and correcting mistakes.  Eventually, the child might do some of the pages for homework or with his parents.

“Explode the Code” reinforces the harder work of reading lists of words.  It does not follow the exact sequencing of skills in “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” but you can adapt one to the other easily.

Why “Explode the Code”?  I have used this series with dozens of children, and all have liked the silliness of the drawings.  For children whose vocabulary is limited, the drawings and distractor words offer opportunities to develop new vocabulary.  There are other workbook series, but because of the humor and sequence of phonics development in “Explode the Code,” I like it.

Seated young boy is playing a portable video game..Third, buy a set of letter tiles.  You can use the tiles from a Scrabble game or from Bananagrams.  Or  use a keyboard.  What you want to do is to introduce, teach and review new concepts. using tiles or computer words.  If you are teaching short a, for example, manipulate the tiles so the child can see them to form “cat” and then “hat” and then “fat,” etc.  Changing the first letter while keeping the ending vowel and consonant is easier for beginning readers to decode.  Using tiles or computer-generated words enables you to go quickly.  Later, you can move from “mat” to “mate” or from “mick” to “mike” and back and forth quickly to show differences in spellings and sounds.

Fourth, recommend to the child’s parents that the child watch the Netflix series “Alphablocks,” an animated series using silly letter characters to teach phonics.  This British series offers tiny segments of  three or four minutes to teach particular phonics skills.  Even three-year-olds will learn to recognize letters from watching this series.  Older children will be able to read words as they pop up on the screen.

All of these materials are readily available, allowing you to start teaching immediately.  Young children need variety, so move from one resource to another every 10 or 15 minutes.  The younger or more distractible the child, the more necessary it is to have a variety of approaches—as well as learning materials the child can manipulate, like the tiles.

Reading lists and reading tile-made words or computer-screen words does not require the fine motor coordination some beginning readers lack.  When I use “Explode the Code,” for some children I allow drawing lines from words to drawings rather than writing words.  Keep in mind you are teaching reading, and even though it would be nice for the child to print the letters, or to spell correctly, that is not necessary to read.  For particularly uncoordinated children, I will write or draw or encircle providing they do the reading.  Anything to keep them reading!

Start each lesson with a quick—two or three minute—review of past work, slowing down if the concepts haven’t been learned.  Then introduce new work or repeat old work if that is needed.  At the end of the lesson, review the new work of the lesson.  Review, teach new, review again.

Finally, FYI, I am not being paid to suggest these particular products.  I am suggesting them because I know they work, they are available and they are affordable.

Please share your experiences teaching reading online.  That is the kind of information we are all wanting right now.

5 ways to keep beginning readers engaged

The younger the reading student, the more activities a teacher needs to keep the student engaged during a lesson.  For four- and five-year-olds, I come prepared with a bagful of reading activities such as

  • A stack of pictures showing CVC words (flag, map, dog, cat, and pen) which the student sorts into two piles: those that have the desired vowel or consonant sound, and those that don’t.
  • Letter tiles which I use to form words, phrases and sentences for the student to read. Sentences using the student’s own name attract the youngest readers.  Letting the student create some of the words. also keeps the student engaged.
  • Stories written with the simplest CVC vocabulary which the student and I read together, and then which she reads independently.
  • Twelve pictures of rhyming words on index cards .

Another kind of reading assignment that my youngest reading students like is reading and answering silly questions like the following:

  1. Can an ant wink to a cat? Yes   No
  2. Can a bug land on a lip? Yes   No
  3. Will a duck swim in a mug? Yes   No
  4. Can a big cat fit in a bag? Yes   No
  5. Will a dog dig with a pen? Yes   No

The questions consist of whatever examples of the reading concept we are studying at the time such as CVC words, blends, or two-syllable short-vowel words.  Almost all the questions are ridiculous and the more ridiculous the better.  Having colored pencils or markers to use intensifies the fun.

I find that the more hands-on the activity, the better.  Early readers sometimes cannot print letters, but they can make ovals around words or draw matching lines.  They can hold a small stack of pictures and sort them into piles.  They can move around letter tiles.

The more busy their bodies are, the more likely they are to stay engaged.

What to do when a child says “It hurts” as he reads

I was talking to my friend about her summer visit with her grandson who is about to start first grade.  Together the two of them were reading a beginner reader.  The boy was reading the three- and four-letter words well.

But when he came to a longer word, he would look up with sad, sad eyes  and say, “It hurts!”

“What hurts?” his grandmother would ask.

“That word hurts.  It’s too big,” he would say.

It would be a funny story if the pain the boy felt were not real.  I have seen this with other children too.

In particular I have seen children squirm when we first attempt  CVCe words after mastering CVC words.  That silent e at the end of words seems like an impossible hurdle:  so intimidating that children would rather stop learning than face it.

I’ve seen the fear, too, when children are learning how to read two-syllable words.  When there are twin consonants, as in “little” or “yellow,” and I tell them to split the word between the identical consonants, there is no problem.  But when we attempt to read syllables in words with different consonants between two vowels such as “Wilson” or “random,” the children freak.

Their fear is real.

One time I moved from CVC to CVCe words with a girl who had had no previous phonics learning.  She could read most CVC words easily, so I spent only a few lessons reviewing them before moving on to CVCe words.  She looked at those words as if they were spitting fire.  She stopped speaking, shook her head, crossed her arms in front of her and pushed back her chair.  We had reached the limit of her understanding, and she feared what lay ahead.

If this happens to you, I suggest

Figure out where the student’s learning boundary is. What has the student learned fairly confidently, and what next step brings on fear.

Begin each lesson with a review of what the student already knows. Compliment the student.  Make students believe in their abilities.

Introduce the next concept slowly, incrementally. For example, if you are introducing CVCe words, start with only one vowel such as a.  Don’t try to teach all five vowels in the same lesson.

Show the child similar words with and without the silent e, such as “cap” and “cape,” and “tap” and “tape.” Or “mit” and “mitten,” and “kit” and “kitten.”  Since replacing first consonants is easier than replacing second consonants, stick to the same second consonant for the first lesson.  Keep as much of the words the same as you can so there are fewer variables.

If at the next lesson the student seems to have forgotten the previous lesson, accept that and start again. Some children move quickly through phonics, and others move slowly, or stall at learning certain skills.

If the child learns slowly, advance slowly. There is no right or wrong length of time to learn phonics skills.  What you are teaching the child is a life-long skill, so if it takes five months to conquer CVCe, so what?  Over a lifetime of 80-plus years, isn’t it better to learn to read well than to forever “hurt” when you see hard words?

7 symbols early readers can use to annotate texts

Annotating texts is an important reading skill.  Finding the main idea, identifying ideas which support that main idea, identifying facts (not opinions), discovering new or unusual words—as adults we know to look for this kind of information and to annotate it in the margins as we read.

But what if you are a beginning reader and can’t write words like “main idea” or even “fact”?  How do you annotate a text so you can go back and understand it better?

An elementary school in the Bronx has figured out how.  The school teaches preschoolers to mark texts with the following seven symbols.  (The meaning of the symbols follows.)   

Marking the text this way is part of Concourse Village Elementary School’s way of helping students understand what they read.  And it works!  88 percent of students scored at the advanced or proficient levels on the New York State exams in both math and English language arts in 2018.  That’s more than 40 points higher than the citywide averages.  To find out more information, go to an article in Edutopia at https://www.edutopia.org/article/driving-deep-reading-comprehension-k-5.

How to stop or reverse the summer slide

Summer is a time when kids can lose some of their reading abilities if kids don’t read.  But it can also be a time of improved reading if kids read nearly every day.  How can you help?

Read to your child daily.  For prereaders, read picture books, asking questions to gain information from the illustrations.  For beginning readers, sit side-by-side with your child and let the child read to you.  Or if he balks, you read one page and he reads the next.  Older children love to be read to, so don’t stop just because they can read.

Ask questions while you read.  “Why did he do that?”  “What do you think will happen next?”  “Where did the story happen?”  Questions force the child to think harder about the text and to remember.  Ask questions after every page or two and at the end of the book.  This kind of questioning can help children strengthen their memory skills.

Pick a reading time and stick to it.  Usually right before “lights out” is a time when reading together can be habitual, especially if the child believes reading allows him to stay up later.  If the child doesn’t need to wake up early the next day, leave a pile of books in the bed for the child to finger through for an extra 15 or 30 minutes.

Take your child to the library.  Investigate books unlike the ones you have at home.  Use those books to expand your child’s knowledge about the world.  If one is about George Washington’s life, look for books on surveying or colonial life or false teeth.  Supplemental reading enriches and extends the ideas of one book.  You and your child can do this online too.

After you read a book together, close it and ask the child to retell the story.  Or let the child look at the pictures and retell the story.

Select a “word of the day” taken from the child’s reading. Write it on a few cards and put them on the refrigerator, on the kitchen counter, and on the car dashboard.  Use that word several times a day in sentences which the child can understand.  You can make learning the word a game.  For every time the child can tell you what the word means, she gets a sticker.

Draw pictures of words to help the child learn them.  You can put together weekly vocabulary books of the pictures drawn that week, and read them at night to help the child remember the words.  The more the child uses the words, the more likely the child will remember them.

For parents working more than one job or away from home for long hours, finding time for summer reading can be hard.  But if you think of it as a necessity for your child’s future—like brushing teeth or eating fresh fruit—you can build reading into your routine.  If money allows, you can hire a middle schooler or high schooler to come into the home and read while you prepare dinner or after the kids have had their baths.

If you have ever felt behind your classmates, you know how debilitating that feels.  Make a promise to hone your child’s reading summer skills so next fall he or she starts school on level or even advanced.  Your child’s triumphant smile will thank you.

Which to teach after CVC words—double syllables, double vowels or silent e’s?

Reading experts agree that CVC words—two consonants sandwiching a short or closed vowel—should be taught first to children who are just beginning to read.  The reason has to do with logic.  Almost all CVC words pronounce sounds in the expected way, that is, with a one-to-one correspondence between the sound and the letter representing the sound.  The few words which are exceptions to the rules—words like “was” and “gym”—are not taught yet.

Experts also agree that one-syllable CVC words containing blends in which each letter is sounded should be taught next.  Words with blends at the beginning, words like “spot” and “drum,” should be taught before words with blends at the end, words like “bend” and “lump,” because beginning sounds are easier to master than ending sounds.

Teaching reading in this order is important because most beginning readers are four to six years old, and their sense of logic does not allow for exceptions.  All red lights mean stop, no exceptions.  Every time Dad says “no,” that means no, no exceptions.  One plus one equals two every time, no exceptions.  Every “z” is pronounced “z,” no exceptions.

The problem for teachers is that after children learn CVC words, what kinds of words should they learn next?

  • Two syllable words containing two CVC segments (CVCCVC) such as “rabbit” and “Justin”?
  • CVCe one-syllable words containing a silent e at the end such as “make” and “kite”?
  • CVVC one-syllable words containing double vowels such as “Jean” and “boat”?

There is no correct approach after teaching CVC words.  Teaching two-syllable CVCCVC words maintains the logic of one sound per letter, but two syllables are harder to learn than one.  All those letters can look intimidating to a tiny child.

child with adult helping to read

CVCe words require that the last letter not be sounded, which breaks the rule of one sound per letter.  If lots of silent letters were not pronounced, this would wreak havoc in a child’s mind.  But since the same letter—“e”—is not sounded, this maintains a one-to-one logical relationship that is easy to remember.

The hard part of CVCe words is that the silent e changes the sound of the vowel to a long or open vowel sound.  Previously children needed to know five vowel sounds; to learn CVCe words they need to know ten.  (Actually, they need to know eleven if both sounds of u are taught.  In “mule” the u sounds like “yu” and in “tune” the “u” sounds like “u.”)

One child I taught could not make the transition from CVC to CVCe words even after several months of work.  She could remember how to pronounce either CVC or CVCe words, but when I mixed them, she could not go back and forth sounding the words correctly.

Learning CVVC words containing double vowels is readily grasped if the double vowels are identical, as they are when the vowels are “ee” as in “seen” and “deed.”  Usually when the vowels are different, as in “mean” and “read,” the second vowel is silent but its presence means the first vowel is pronounced like a long or open vowel.  The new reader needs to remember two ideas:  that the second vowel is not pronounced, and that the first vowel is not pronounced like a CVC vowel.  For some children this is difficult even if exceptions are not mentioned.

What to teach after CVC words?  The choice is yours, but each option comes with its difficulties for children.  I usually teach the silent e words next.  I have tried printing words with a shadowy “e” which helps children to remember not to say the “e.”  But when I take away the shadowy letter “e,” it is like starting over.  What I thought would be a short cut way to learn turns out to be a dead end detour.

One thing I have learned:  Integrating whatever you teach next with CVC words can take a long time.

Recognizing sounds come first, not recognizing letters

Which comes first, reading or speaking?  Speaking, of course.  A one-year-old can say a few words, but hardly any one-year-old can read.  Most two-year-olds can say hundreds of words and can form tiny sentences, but hardly any two-year-olds can read.

Which comes first, recognizing sounds or recognizing letters? Recognizing sounds, of course.  A one-year-old can recognize and repeat the sounds of many words, but few one-year-olds can recognize letters.  A two-year-old knows hundreds of words, but hardly any two-year-olds recognize more than a handful of letters.

So if sounds and speaking come before recognizing letters and reading, why do some teachers teach the ABC’s first—recognizing visual “pictures” of sounds—rather than teaching the sounds of our language first?

Are we teaching reading backwards?

What if instead of teaching children to read “cat” using ABC’s, we taught children to read “cat” orally, with no ABC’s?  What if we taught children how to recognize the separate sounds that form words like “cat”?  What if we said “c-a-t” slowly, emphasizing the “c,” “a,” and “t” sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?  What if we asked preschoolers to break down little words like “cat” into their beginning, middle and ending sounds without ever naming those sounds with letter names?

This would be a radically different approach to teaching reading.  But this approach would align with what researchers are learning about how our brains learn to read.

The foundation of reading is not ABC’s.  The foundation of reading is sounds, sounds listened to by a child and sounds repeated aloud by a child.

How would that work in practice?

  • You, the teacher, would say, one-at-a-time, the 40-plus sounds of the English language. Your student would repeat those sounds, one at a time.  If some sounds were hard for the student to say, you would repeat those sounds and ask the child to repeat those sounds until you were sure the child could hear and pronounce those sounds correctly.
  • Next, one-at-a-time, you would say some tiny words and ask the child to say each word and to say the sounds in the word. You would model how to do this with many words until the child knew what was expected.  You would make it a game, looking around and saying the name of an object nearby like “bat.”  You would sound out the word slowly—“b,” “a,” “t”—and ask the child to do the same.  At first this might be hard for the child, but once she figures out what is expected, she would sound out words quickly.
  • With practice, the child would understand that individual sounds, when combined, form words. Only then would you introduce ABC’s.

Pronunciation of words is an important aspect of learning to read.  Our brains store the sounds of words just like they store the meaning and the look of words. In your mind, right now, as you are reading these words, you are saying the words, right?  And you are remembering the meaning of those words, though at this stage of your life, that might be so automatic that you are unaware of it.  Long ago when you were learning to read, it was the sound of the words which came first to you, long before you knew what the words meant or before you could decipher the letter patterns of words.  Sounds come first.

For more information, read the research of Linnea Ehri (2002).

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read–part 2

Once you are sure your child can hear and say the sounds of the English language, the next step is to make your child understand that we use letters to represent those sounds.child making letter T with his body

One good way is to explain that people a long time ago figured out how to make pictures of sounds.  Those pictures of sounds are called letters.  In English those pictures are called ABC’s.

Say the child’s name.  Emphasize the sound at the beginning of the name.  Then show or draw the letter which the child’s name begins with.  You don’t need to call the letter by its name yet; rather, call the letter by the sound it represents.

For example, if your child’s name is Teddy, say his name emphasizing the “t” sound at the beginning of the name.  Show or draw the letter “t” but when you point to it, say the “t” sound.  Collect or point out objects which begin with the same sound.  Help the child to see that the “t” sound is in many words.  Kids will hear the sound more readily at the beginnings of words.

Some kids catch on fast and you can add another letter sound almost immediately.  For others you should focus on one sound at a time for several days.  Start with names of family members.  Focus on the first sound of the name, not middle sounds or ending sounds.  Move on to objects the child sees or uses daily.  Keep reviewing the letter sounds the child has already learned.

Stick to sounds which follow a one-to-one sound-to-letter correspondence.  For now, avoid names like Yvonne or Celine in which the first sound of the name is not represented by the letter usually associated with that sound.  Names which begin with digraphs like Shelly or Thad should also be avoided for now.  Four-year-olds can understand one-to-one logic.  Save words in which one sound is represented by two letters until later.

So you’ve decided to teach your four-year-old to read

But you don’t know where to begin.  Well, you’re in luck, because I do.  And for the next few months I am going to offer a sequenced approach to teaching reading to a beginner.

Reading starts with hearing sounds properly.  Make sure your child can hear the 44 or so sounds of English.  How?  You say a sound and ask the child to repeat the sound.  If the child can repeat the sound properly, he or she can hear it properly.  If not, work on the few sounds which your child cannot pronounce.  Say words with the sound in them.  Ask the child to mimic you.  Show pictures of everyday objects which have the sound in them.  Ask the child to say the word.

The 44 sounds are listed below.  In some parts of the US, 43 or 45 sounds might be used because of regional dialects.  The same holds true of other English speaking countries.

At this point, you needn’t use the word “letter” or teach the ABC’s.  Hearing and speaking sounds comes first.

Is it better to teach three-letter or two-letter words first

Most phonics systems begin with three letter words like “dad” and “pat.”  You could just as easily begin with two letter words like “at” and “ab.”  Don’t worry if the word isn’t real.  A four- or five-year-old child won’t recognize that some words are not real.  If the child seems perplexed, explain that “ak” is not a real word.  But if the child doesn’t question a word, as long as he pronounces it correctly, skip the explanations.

I have found that skipping the two-letter short-vowel words is a mistake.   If a child becomes used to always seeing a consonant at the beginning of a word, he might become confused if a word starts with a vowel.  If a child knows his sounds and letter correspondence, then there is no reason why two-letter words should confuse him.  To avoid this problem, I would not wait to teach two-letter words.

When the child has successfully combined most of the first handful of letters into words, add more consonants but keep the same vowel.  “H,” “j” and “l” are good second choices.  You might think that “h” has different sounds when combined with “c” and “s” (“ch” and “sh”).  True.  But as a first letter, “h” always sounds like an “h.”  The sound of “h” has a one-to-one correspondence to the letter “h” at the beginnings of words; it is distinct.  The child won’t be confused because no words end in only “h.”

How long does this take?  Some kids pick up the “code” of reading almost intuitively but for others it’s a long struggle to learn.  Don’t pressure a child to move on if the child isn’t ready.